Mark Mazzetti on The Way of the Knife

Lt. Col. John Paul Vann famously said during the Vietnam War that the best weapon in a war against insurgents was a knife, and the worst possible weapon was a bomb.   That is, in order to win, it is necessary to kill your enemies without killing indiscriminately and making new enemies.

Unfortunately for the United States, our armed forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan used the way of the bomb against enemies who used the way of the knife.

I recently finished reading THE WAY OF THE KNIFE: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti (2013), which is a study of the American attempt to substitute targeted killing for indiscriminate killing and why it failed.

wayoftheknifeIt is based on interviews with members of the CIA and Special Operations forces as well as freelance operatives.  Mazzetti is fair to their point of view and to the risks they ran to do their duty as they saw it.  He gives a good picture of the war on terror as they experienced it.

His book is excellent for what it is, keeping in mind that it does not deal with the war as experienced by civilians on the ground nor does it explore the higher-level economic and geo-political aims of the war (controlling oil, containing Russia and China).

The Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have become powers unto themselves, with their own policy agendas that are separate from that of the elected leadership .

This is not only a problem of implementation of military and foreign policy.  It is a Constitutional question which calls into question the possibility of limiting power by means of checks and balances.

Leon Panetta as a congressman was a strong critic of the CIA.  But when President Obama appointed him director of the CIA, he was warned of the danger of endangering CIA “morale,” which, according to Mazzetti, he took as a veiled warning.  Panetta quickly became a strong advocate for the CIA’s viewpoint within the administration.  And the Obama administration itself doubled down on the policies for which Barack Obama as candidate criticized the Bush administration.

Instead of checks and balances, the government has an internal conflict between the CIA and the Pentagon.  The CIA does not trust the Pentagon to react quickly and has developed its own para-military forces.   The Pentagon does not trust the CIA’s intelligence and has developed its own sources of intelligence.  In general, the CIA works with intelligence services of foreign governments, such as Pakistan, while the Pentagon regards them as quasi-enemies.

The CIA and Pentagon operate independently of each other, and often disrupt each others’ missions.  Then there are mercenaries, and independent operators which are only loosely controlled by the U.S. government.

American foreign policy is implemented and largely determined by the CIA and Pentagon.  The State Department and career diplomats have no say at all, as has been made clear at top-level meetings.

A consequence of this is that the United States lacks a central intelligence agency, which the government sorely needs.  The CIA’s mission in theory is to gather information, both covertly and openly, that will enable American leaders to understand and foresee what is happening in the world.  Instead it is a covert operations agency, like the OSS during World War Two.

But even good intelligence is useless if it is not believed, which was the case, for example, when the Bush administration had to concoct evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify its de.

Mazzetti described the enthusiasm with which Donald Rumsfeld and after him Barack Obama embraced drone warfare.  These flying killer robots provided a means of targeting individual enemies, without putting American troops at risk.   The problem with drones is that they made killing all too easy and without seeming consequences.  President Obama’s relish of his role of killer-in-chief is chilling.

I see nothing wrong with drones as a weapon of war.   Imagine an platoon of American soldiers or Marines advancing, with a drone overhead, giving information about what lies beyond the next hill.  Nor do I see anything morally wrong with assassinating the assassins.

But by a series of incremental decisions, which seemed to make sense at the time, the United States has come to wage a war without boundaries, without a clearly defined enemy and without a clearly defined objective, which has spread not democracy, but rather death and destruction across the world.


Click on What’s In It For Obama? for a review of Mazzetti’s book by Stephen Holmes in the London Review of Books.

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